When I think Utah, I don’t think of alcohol, I think of skiing. I was in Salt Lake City last year, skied one day at Snow Bird, and then left. Come to think of it I didn’t even have a drink while I was there which usually I do because I am a much better skier after a dram or two! Anyways, High West has made Utah a top destination for American Whiskey lovers. Now there are over a dozen distilleries in the state, but this is a small number compared to how many producers were based there in the mid 1800's. Many historical state events led Utah to enforce strict alcohol regulations and distillation ceased to exist or at least be documented. It wasn’t until 2002 when the Winter Olympics were held in Salt Lake City that the state decided to temporarily uplift their strict liquor laws. During the Olympics, Utah made a very significant amount of money from taxation of the alcohol sold during the event. This would help guide the way for High West to gain the legal rights to open a distillery.
In 2004 High West was officially incorporated and in 2006 they started blending and distilling in Park City, Utah. Although they were producing during this time it was on a very small scale. It was on a 250 gallon pot still and never enough to be the foundation for a brand. Founders David Perkins and his wife Jane were pioneers for the state of Utah. I can’t speak for every whiskey lover but these stories of regulation overthrows and legal change around alcohol make my whiskey heart swell with joy. These stories are what keep us so intrigued with new whiskey producers and it’s not dissimilar to Tasmania, American Single Malts etc. All are working towards overturning old and outdated legislation.
Now High West has locations in both Park City and Wanship, Utah. The original pot still and the extremely popular dining saloon are in downtown Park City. The new distillery that was opened in 2015 is just north of Park City and is a part f Blue Sky Ranch in Wanship. To experience the perfect High West whiskey day, start by visiting the Blue Sky Ranch. Walk through the distillery and see the full operation while ending the tour with a few Utah exclusive whiskeys. Then head into town for the evening with all the local skiers and snowboarders and dine and drink more rye at the Park City Saloon!
Not only was High West the main change agent around legislation for distillation in Utah but at the same time they were also building an empire around their sourced and blended releases. As of right now almost every bottle that has a High West label and is sold outside of Utah is sourced and not produced at their distillery. If you look at the dates, it has only been a few years since the large-scale distillery opened. One perk of making the trek out to Park City and visiting the distillery is that you can try their Valley Tan Whiskey which is 100% produced at High West Distillery. They are known to be excellent blenders and bottlers of rye whiskey that they procure from distilleries all over the country. Their blending and vatting stations can be seen on site at the Wanship location. So, when we talk about production we are talking about what they are producing currently on site and not the whiskey they are sourcing from other distilleries.
Most of their grain comes from South East Idaho which they say is “basically Northern Utah”. Water, as we know, is one of the three main ingredients of whiskey. They are using their Rocky Mountain water which as you can imagine has a very high mineral content and is much different than Kentucky and other parts of the country. This Rocky Mountain water is pulled directly from Blue Oyster Ridge aquifer. A typical mash bill for their rye is 80% rye and 20% malted barley. They are producing quite a bit of single malt as well. I guess that is a must if you have Forsyth pot stills. The mash tun is stainless steel and sits at a 1600-gallon capacity. They only have one mash tun. Their twin fermentation tanks are almost identical to the mash tun and also at a 1600-gallon capacity. They run a three-day fermentation and the wash/beer gets to about 8-10% ABV. To take it one step further, they are also propagating their own yeast on site. Elevated above the distillery floor is the Forsyth copper pot still and rectifying column. There is only one pot still column set up right now but the vision of High West and its new owners, Constellation Brands, is to have four pot stills producing all different styles of whiskey.
The hearts of the distillation run are being filled on site into Independent Stave new American Oak barrels. They request a level 5 char on the barrel for all whiskey types along with a level 3 char on the caps. In a typical year they will lose anywhere from 1-5% volume to angel’s share. It can get so dry in Utah that they lose water quickly and the proof actually goes up. What a great state to make whiskey! In comparison, Scotland is damp and wet, and they typically lose alcohol first over water. About 2,500 barrels sit in the vatting and blending room in Wanship but their main warehouse is closer to Salt Lake City where they have about 10,000 barrels of whiskey resting.
All the blending and bottling is done in Wanship and their maximum capacity for bottling is about 5,000 bottles of whiskey per day. They are doing something right because High West is sold in all 50 states and 16 countries. I think it’s safe to say they are quality blenders. With new ownership and this beautiful location, it is only up from here for both High West and the Utah whiskey trail.
Here are a few of the exclusive whiskeys I tried at the distillery:
14 Year Old Light Whiskey
Corn Mash Bill – only available in Utah
100 barrels acquired from MGP
Aged in second fill American Oak
Cherries, strawberries, vanilla fudge. Strawberry ice cream. Toffee sliver with some nougat and ripe fruits.
Light Whiskey doesn’t have the sexiest name, but it is a cool story. Legally, in the United States, if you distill a grain spirit over 160 proof off of the still then it is light whiskey. If you continue to distill to a higher proof and go over 190, then you are now legally NGS (neutral grain spirit). This small window of 160-190 is a world we typically don’t ever see product from. A very unique bottle for a technical whiskey nerd!
Valley Tan Whiskey
Utah red winter wheat
Distilled in Wanship
1-6 year old wheat and oat whisky
Creamy honey and oatmeal cookies with raisins. Some youth but more citrus on the palate. Bright, pineapple and floral on the finish.
Yippee Ki-Yay Whiskey
Sourced rye whiskey finished in Vermouth and Syrah casks
Rye whiskeys aged 2-16 years
Chocolate covered almonds, cherries and a little hazelnut Nutella feel. Plums. Earthy port, a little funky and moldy. Weird tangy finish almost confectionary but a cool play on finishing casks.